An Overview of Capital Punishment
Capital punishment is punishment by death for committing a crime. Since
the early 1800's most executions have resulted from convictions for murder. The
death penalty has also been imposed for such serious crimes as armed robbery,
kidnapping, rape, and treason. There is much disagreement about
whether or not capital punishment is effective in discouraging crime.
In the early 1990's, 36 states of the United States had laws that permitted
the death penalty. These laws were greatly influenced by a 1972 decision of the
Supreme Court of the United States which had banned the death penalty as it was
then imposed, describing the carrying out of the death penalty as cruel and
unusual punishment. But the court left open the possibility that the death
penalty might be imposed for certain crimes and if it was applied according to
After this decision was made, new capital punishment laws were made to
satisfy the Supreme Court's requirements. These laws limit the death penalty to
murder and to other specified crimes that result in a person's death. These
crimes include armed robbery, hijacking, and kidnapping.
Many countries, including most European and Latin-American nations, have
abolished the death penalty since 1900 - including Canada, which did so in 1976.
In the early 1990's, the United States was the only Western industrialized
nation where executions still took place.
Capital punishment was common among all ancient civilizations. It was used
for a variety of offenses that today aren't crimes at all, like stealing the
keys to someone's wine cellar.
There were many different methods of executions, and they all had a
barbaric quality. Some of the more vicious methods were stoning, impaling,
boiling in oil, burned alive, and being stretched on the rack.
One of the most notorious ways of executions was being beheaded by a
guillotine. This machine, invented by Joseph Ignace Guillotin (1738-1814),
became the official instrument of execution in France during the French
Revolution. It dropped a huge knife that cut off the victim's head. It was
regarded as quick and merciful. The guillotine was used until 1981, when
capital punishment was abolished in France.
The death penalty was a popular method of punishment in England.
Imprisonment was hardly ever used. In the 15th century there were eight capital
crimes: treason , petty treason, murder, larceny, robbery, burglary, rape, and
arson. Other crimes were soon added to the list, so that by the year 1780 there
Executions were common enough to require gallows in every district of
London. Bodies were sometimes left hanging as a warning to other would-be
criminals. If the hangman were so inclined, he might...